August 8, 2017 12:33 pm

Antisocial honey bees could provide insight about autism: study

Scientists are turning to bee hives to study the genetic make up of autism.

Andy Duback/The Canadian Press

Researchers at the University of Illinois are turning to honey bees to better understand autism spectrum disorders in humans.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said antisocial honey bees may share the same genetic profile with people who have autism.

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“Honey bees have highly sophisticated and well-described social behaviours,” the team of researchers said in the study.

“Autism spectrum disorders are primarily characterized by a lack of the capacity to engage in reciprocal social interactions.”

READ MORE: Lacking a single protein may be the cause of 1 in 3 autism cases: Canadian research

There are different types of honey bee roles in a hive; guard bees react to intruders and nurse bees care for the queen larvae. However, after testing 245 groups of bees from seven different colonies, researchers found there are bees who don’t react to these social situations.

In the first test, the researchers stuck an unfamiliar bee in the group, which typically makes bees act aggressively to the outsider. This aggressive behaviour sometimes leads to injury for the stranger.

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In the second test, the researchers put an immature queen larva in with the group, which typically brings out nurturing instincts for bees.

“For any given task, most honey bees fall somewhere in the highly engaged to moderately engaged camp,” University of Illinois entomology professor Gene Robinson told Phys.Org. “Typically, honey bees will respond more robustly to one stimulus than to another.”

However, around 14 per cent of the bees were unresponsive to both, according to the study.

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The unresponsive bees’ lack of social awareness looked similar to the social difficulties faced by some people with autism, he added.

Related genes?

The researchers didn’t just look at the antisocial behaviour of the bees, they also took a look at the genes that could drive the behaviour. The team tested the genes inside the brain of the bees and found that more than 1,000 genes were regulated differently between social and nonsocial bees.

The genes of the unresponsive bees were then compared to genes associated with autism. And the researchers found an overlap.

Researchers did not find overlap with human genes associated with depression, schizophrenia and several other mental disorders.

“Our data are telling us that social unresponsiveness does have some common molecular characteristics in these distantly related species,” Robinson said.

Robinson added that “humans are not big bees and bees are not little humans.” He said the autism spectrum disorder is very complex, and unresponsiveness is not the only behaviour associated with it.

READ MORE: Scientists find more genes possibly linked to autism with advanced sequencing tool

“While social behaviour likely evolved independently in honey bees and humans, our data reveal that they make use of common toolkits, common building blocks,” he said.

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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